Meet Chelsea Williams

By David Barrett

Republished from our “John 5” Issue

Digging in her heels and staying true to her artistic vision: Chelsea Williams bounces back with Boomerang.

Chelsea Williams was born in Ohio and relocated to California at a young age. She’s accomplished more in the last few years than most musicians do in a lifetime, by being a permanent fixture on the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade and independently selling and unheard of amount of CDs by today’s standards. Chelsea’s garnered the attention of some huge names in Hollywood with her compelling voice and creative musicality. Chelsea talks about her quest to dig deeper and develop her own unique voice.

Guitar Connoisseur: It’s awesome to grow up with access to your parent’s record collection, can you talk about your earliest influences and why you were drawn to Bob Dylan?

Chelsea Williams: I did listen to a lot of Bob Dylan growing up (and still do). The funny thing is, my mom was a singer/vocal coach and couldn’t stand his voice so she never had any of his records around. Listening to Bob Dylan became a bit of a rebellious act for me. I remember watching Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” and just falling in love with the irreverent humor in Dylan’s songs and in his interviews from that time. I remember thinking, this guy is a true artist. He seemed to live and breath his poetry.

GC: Selling 100,000 units of anything isn’t easy these days with digital music and online streaming, could you give us some insight into this amazing accomplishment?

CW: It’s definitely weird to think about getting that many discs out there into the world. I don’t have any children but it makes me feel a regular Aston “Family Man” Barrett or something. When I first started playing music on the streets and selling CDs out there 10 years ago, it never crossed my mind that it might turn into my full-time job. I was just a kid looking for some attention and maybe a little pocket change. But it became so much more than that for me, from a source of income to a form of therapy… playing the streets has gotten me booked playing in Barcelona, Spain and singing a duet with Adam Levine. I think if you do anything religiously for 20-30 hours a week, you’re bound to see some results.

GC: Tell us about the shows at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade?

CW: There was actually a bit of a learning curve just getting my set up together. There’s no power source out there, so I ended up putting together a car battery and power inverter to get enough power for my PA system. I much prefer the sound quality of a two speaker PA system to a small battery powered amp. Plus, with my PA system, I get more inputs so I can use my Log Jammer porch stomper and bring along my guitar pedal board to fill out my sound. Even after playing there for over 10 years… I still get a little nervous every time. Every day is different, and every crowd is different. So you never know if it’s gonna be the day that the head of Blue Elan Records buys your CD and signs you to a record deal, or if it’s the day that someone runs off with your tip jar. But I guess that kind of keeps it exciting.

GC: Do you have any more insight into playing less conventional venues that are favorable for artists like yourself?

CW: I’ve played all kinds of unconventional venues. From laundry mats to elevators at the mall, I find it thrilling to surprise people, to kind of shock them into the present moment. And I think there’s something about that kind of effect that can be more impactful than if they were to see me play in a more conventional place (say, indoors on an actual stage). There’s some kind of magic that comes through the process of unexpected discovery. Although, I am in NO WAY discounting playing actual venues. I think live music in any form is extremely important and could use any and all support it can get these days.

GC: Keeping your integrity and cultivating your original style is essential for emerging artists, what helped you stay on course, and true to your vision?

CW: Over the years, I’ve definitely had a core group of supporters who have stuck by me. Not only giving me encouragement but also serving up some real talk when I needed it. A couple of years back I signed a deal with a major label and did a small EP release with them. The music was much more electronic and pop than my previous recordings and I think it was clear that I didn’t have a whole lot to do with the production. During that time I sunk into a bit of depression. I just felt a bit lost. But I was fortunate enough to have several supporters approach me and help to remind me who I really was and help me realize how important it is to stay true to that. I’ve since released a new record (Boomerang) on my new label Blue Elan Records and couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

GC: Can you talk about any pivotal moments, between your deal with Interscope and recording Boomerang, that contributed to developing and deepening your overall approach to being a singer-songwriter?

CW: I think my experience with Interscope really made me double down on my own artistic perspective in songwriting and production. Going up against such a huge profit-driven machine really made me realize how important and valuable artists are and how necessary creative originality is. I honestly look at it as a basic human need, right up there with food and water.

GC: How has working with a great producer changed you artistically, and do you still like to record and produce yourself using GarageBand?

CW: Working with Ross Garren was absolutely life-changing. He really brought my vision to life and sharpened it along the way. His ears are fantastic. The way he hears chord structures is like 50% Bach and 50% Randy Newman. He can rearrange a song and just make it come to life. Not to mention the fact that he’s a bit of a vintage gearhead. So we had a lot of fun playing with Space Echo, tape delay, mellotron and all kinds of goodies that were all new to me. I felt like a kid in a candy store! The experience was definitely a million miles away from recording myself in GarageBand. But GarageBand is still such a great tool for fleshing out production ideas on my own. (although I’ll admit, sometimes I miss my old 4 track tape recorder).

GC: Do you use predominantly new Martin acoustic guitars, they record so well and sit in the track so easily, and what about electric guitars and amplifiers, you seem to prefer some of the more retro American sounds?

CW: To be honest, I have pretty much played one guitar for the last 7 years. Whether I’m playing live, or recording in the studio, I use my Martin DC16GTE. I bought it at a small guitar shop in Glendale. I stalked that guitar for weeks before I bought it. I would go in every couple days and compare it to other guitars. I just liked the big beefy bass sound it gets. But yes, there are all kinds of other vintage guitars and gear on my most recent record (Boomerang). Brady Cohan and John Schroeder both played electric guitar. Here are just a few of the guitars/amps they played.

  • Mid 60s Fender Jazzmaster
  • 2009 American Standard Telecaster with Lollar vintage-voiced Tele pickups
  • Eastwood Sidejack Baritone Deluxe
  • 1969 Martin 000-18
  • Late 70s Takamine 12 string
  • 1965 Fender Deluxe Reverb amplifier

GC: Your songs presented on video have excellent, clean production value, and the vocals sound fantastic, is there a conscious effort to produce such immediate, and concise songs?

CW: Thank you! Absolutely yes, 100%. When it comes to recording my vocals and my guitar I feel strongly that they should sound pretty close to what I sound like in person. Maybe I’m just so used to playing live. I’ve definitely played live a lot more than I’ve recorded in the studio. But that’s always been very important to me.

GC: How was the experience working with Adam Levine, and are there more plans for further collaborations with other musicians?

CW: It was such a surprise getting to sing with Adam Levine. It was one of those magical opportunities that arose from playing Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The head of Playing for Change saw me playing out there and approached me on the spot. And the next thing you know I’m singing with Adam Levine in a video on VH1’s top 10 video countdown. Unreal!!

GC: You’ve attracted the attention of some really big names in the entertainment world, such as Sheryl Crow and Ron Howard, what are the most important things that you’ve learned as you continue to hone your skills and develop your own musical brand?

CW: What I’m focusing on these days is just digging deeper in general. Digging deeper emotionally, digging deeper into new skill sets, new sounds new songs. And most importantly digging deeper into my own unique voice. I think we all have a unique perspective, and a unique set of skills and I can’t stress how important I feel it is to share that with the world. I’ve never valued individuality more than I do now. So, I’ve been really digging my heels in on that.

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